For the second year in a row the United States Auto Club’s National Championship was not decided until the very last race of the season-the Rex Mays 300, held on the Riverside circuit in California. It was also the second year in a row that the leading contender for that Championship was Andretti, far and away the most versatile and skilful driver in America today. In 1967, Foyt gained a 1,000-point advantage over Andretti by winning the Indianapolis 500, but Andretti fought hack and only missed a Championship hat-trick by a slim 80 points. In 1968 it was Bobby Unser who gained 1,000 points by winning the 500, but again Andretti had driven back into contention and going into the Rex Mays race (named after the U.S. National Champion in 1940 and 1941) he was leading Unser by 304 points, 4,154 to 3,850. U.S.A.C.’s points system is based on the length of the race, first place being worth 2.0 points per mile, second place 1.6 points per mile, third 1.4, fourth 1.2, fifth 1.0, sixth 0.8, seventh 0.6, eighth 0.5 . . . and so on down to 12th place. Therefore, even if Unser won the race (worth 600 points), Andretti would still win the Championship as long as he finished in fifth place (worth 300 points) or higher. There were, of course, many other possible permutations and several of them were to be played before this somewhat bizarre race was over.
The outcome of this battle between Andretti and Unser for the National Championship tended to overshadow everything else, but the Rex Mays was significant for a number of other reasons as well. For one thing, it was the sixth race of the 24 on the U.S.A.C. Championship Trail that was run on a road circuit and, as such, it attracted a larger-than-usual contingent of road-racing drivers. Heading the list were Gurney in his 5-litre Gurney-Eagle-powered Eagle, Brabham in one of the two 4.2-litre Repco-Brabhams he entered at Indianapolis, and U.S. Road Racing Champion Donohue in a Chevrolet-powered Eagle entered by Penske. Penske was the only entrant to take advantage of U.S.A.C.’s ruling that stock block engines could be increased from 5-litres to 5.25-litres. Gurney has a 5.25-litre version of his Gurney-Eagle but, because it was unproven, he used the well-tested 5-litre version. (In the three U.S.A.C. races Gurney had run in the previous 12 months, this engine had powered him to first place in the 1967 Rex Mays, second place in the Indianapolis 500, and first place in the road race at Mosport in Canada.) Other road-racing drivers included Titus (in Andretti’s second Hawk-Ford), Revson (Eisert-Chev.), Scott (Lola-Ford), Bucknum (Eagle-Ford), Follmer (Gilbert-Ford), Cannon (Mongoose-Ford), S.C.C.A. Formula A Champion Sell (Eagle-Ford), and Muther (Huffaker-Ford).
Another significant feature of the Rex Mays was the fact that it marked the last competitive appearance of the Lotus turbine cars in U.S.A.C. race in their present form. Although U.S.A.C.’s ban on turbine-powered cars does not go into effect until 1970, the inlet area for turbine engines has been reduced to 11.999 sq. in. for 1969 (from 15.999 sq. in. permitted in 1968), and even if the necessary modifications could be made, the cars would be completely uncompetitive. On the other hand, the superb Lotus chassis would probably still be unbeatable at Indianapolis if fitted with, say, a turbo-charged Offenhauser. But car owner Granatelli hates the conventional and when asked about the possibility of installing a piston engine he replied, rather wistfully: “It would be a pity, wouldn’t it?” There were two turbines entered at Riverside, one by Granatelli for Pollard and the other by Parnelli Jones for Leonard, and they had undergone more modification during the season than any other cars in the field. The greatest change was in the brakes, which, though adequate at the 2½-mile Indianapolis track, were overstressed by the more frequent use required on the shorter ovals and the road courses. The solution at Riverside was to install an additional set of discs outboard in the wheels to supplement the original inboard-mounted discs.
Apart from the turbines and the cars driven by Gurney, Brabham, Donohue and Revson, virtually all the other entries were powered by Ford’s ubiquitous 4.2-litre, 4-camshaft Indianapolis engine, whose wider power curve makes it much more suitable for road circuits than the turbo-charged Offenhauser or turbo-charged Ford. All the U.S.A.C. regulars were in this group, including Andretti (Hawk), Bobby Unser (Eagle), Al Unser (four-wheel-drive Lola), Foyt (Coyote), Johncock (Eagle) and Ruby (Mongoose).
The U.S.A.C. cars use Riverside’s 2.6-mile course as opposed to the 3.275-mile circuit used by the Group 7 Can-Am cars, and the fastest lap for the shorter distance was set by Gurney at 1 min. 19.5 sec., or 117.74 m.p.h., when he won the pole position for this race last year. (There is no lap record in the normal sense because U.S.A.C., among its many shortcomings, does not keep a record of race-lap times!) When practice began for this year’s race it soon became obvious that Gurney himself and Andretti were the only ones in the hunt for the pole position. Andretti actually broke the practice record first with a lap at 1 min. 19.2 sec. and before the day ended he had lowered this to 1 min. 19.10 sec. So close was this battle, though, that Gurney was only 0.03 sec. behind at 1 min. 19.13 sec. Foyt was more than one second back at 1 min. 20.15 sec., and he was followed by Bobby Unser at 1 min. 21.28 sec., Al Unser at 1 min. 21.64 sec., Pollard at 1 min. 21.70 sec., Titus at 1 min. 21.73 sec., Leonard at 1 min. 21.88sec., Ruby at 1 min. 22.66 sec., and Revson at 1 mm. 22.77 sec.
On the second day Gurney really had the bit between his teeth and during a practice-only session in the morning he lapped the course in an unofficial 1 min. 18.2 sec. (119.693 m.p.h.). He couldn’t repeat this time when qualifying resumed in the afternoon, but he did record 1 min. 18.95 sec. (118.56 m.p.h.), which put him on the pole position for the second consecutive year. (For comparison, McLaren won the pole for the Riverside Can-Am race with an average speed of 119.683 m.p.h. over the 3.275-mile circuit.) Andretti remained on the front row without improving his time, but Leonard and Al Unser improved to third and fourth fastest with times of 1 min. 19.78 sec. and 1 min. 19.90 sec., respectively. Donohue and Brabham made their first appearances and quickly put their road-racing experience to use by claiming fifth and sixth fastest times of 1 min. 20.01 sec. and 1 min. 20.18 see. Titus fulfilled his role as Andretti’s back-up very competently by qualifying seventh fastest at 1 min. 20.58 sec., and the top 10 positions were filled out by Foyt at 1 min. 20.63 sec., Bobby Unser at 1 min. 20.87 sec. and Pollard at 1 min. 21.70 sec.
The race was run over 116 laps of the short circuit, for a total distance of 300 miles; and at the end of the first lap Gurney led from Andretti, Al Unser, Donohue, Leonard, Titus and Brabham. Bobby Unser got off to a slow start and on the second lap both he and Brabham spun momentarily and dropped well back in the pack. Unser immediately launched a comeback, but Brabham’s Repco engine was soon smoking and after two pit stops he retired with an oil leak around a camshaft cover. On the third lap Andretti squeezed past Gurney into the lead just after Sell’s Eagle crashed and caught fire, but by the seventh lap Gurney was back in front again. Three laps later, Donohue, too, passed Andretti and for the next 65 miles he provided the best race of the afternoon as he sat glued to Gurney’s exhaust pipes. Although Donohue does have considerable experience on the Riverside course, this was only his second race in a single-seat U.S.A.C. Championship car and his performance served to emphasize the generally mediocre standards of most of the U.S.A.C. regulars. Andretti held down third, 10 sec. off the pace, with Leonard fourth, Titus fifth, Pollard sixth, Foyt seventh, Ruby and Bucknum locked in a good dice for eighth, and Bobby Unser moving up quickly in 10th. Al Unser, after damaging the 4-w-d Lola on the 13th lap, had taken over Scott’s 2-w-d car and was well back in the field.
On the 29th lap Andretti lost his back-up when the right rear suspension of Titus’ Hawk collapsed, but on the 36th lap he moved up to second place when Donohue’s great chase ended with a broken right front suspension upright. On the same lap Bobby Unser swept past Leonard into third place but he was now 47.6 sec. behind Andretti and 64.4 sec. away from Gurney—and there seemed little chance he could catch either of them. Leonard then began to lose the brakes on his turbine and fell back behind Ruby, who had finally been taken by Bucknum. Foyt was the first to make a fuel stop, on lap 46, but three laps later he was out of the race as a result of laying rubber all down the pit lane, which broke his transmission. Exactly on the halfway mark, at 58 laps, Gurney came in for his fuel stop, and while he was there Andretti swept past into the lead. But it was a short-lived lead because just as he was about to complete the lap and make his own fuel stop his engine died on the back straight. He was able to coast to the pits but the car was through for the day. With his own back-up car already retired, Andretti had to find another car quickly if he was to earn enough points to prevent Bobby Unser, now in second place, from winning the Championship. As a result of a prior arrangement with Jones, he first hopped into Leonard’s turbine, which he had only driven once before, for four laps at Indianapolis. That nearly proved to be a disaster because he had only gone one lap when he collided with Pollard, in the second turbine, and both cars crashed into the wall lining the last turn. Neither driver was injured and Andretti headed back to the pits to look for yet another car. Because of Andretti’s tyre contract it had to be a Firestone-equipped car and the only hope lay with Ruby, whose Mongoose was now in fourth place behind Bucknum’s Eagle. Andretti did not have a prior arrangement with Ruby but the latter’s crew called him in on the 69th lap and Ruby readily agreed to hand over the car.
Andretti climbed into the car and set off, but it was too late. There were only 47 laps remaining in the race, which meant that Andretti could only get 47/116ths of the 360 points awarded for fourth place. Even if he moved up to third place, which would give him 47/116ths of 420 points, it still would not be enough to prevent Bobby Unser from winning the title assuming he held second place to the finish. As everyone was furiously trying to work out these rather stupid calculations Andretti did move up to third place, one lap behind Gurney, when Bucknum’s very steady drive was unfortunately ended by engine failure on the 73rd lap. At this point there were still more than 100 miles of the 300-mile race remaining but with barely 10 healthy cars running and no changes at all among the leaders this last one-third of the race dragged on interminably. Finally, with six laps to go, Gurney emphasised his fantastic mastery of the Riverside circuit by lapping Bobby Unser and going on to take the chequered flag at a record 111.69 m.p.h.—over 3 m.p.h. faster than his 1967 record. But for Unser second place proved to be just enough, because when the U.S.A.C. mathematicians had finished their calculations Unser had won the National Championship from Andretti by an almost unbelievable 11 points—4,330 points to Andretti’s 4,319. It was the closest finish ever in the National Championship and both drivers exceeded the 52-year-old record of 4,100 points in one season that was set by Dario Resta in 1916. Bobby’s brother, Al Unser, who finished the race in fourth place after taking over Scott’s car, ended up third in the Championship standings with 2,895 points. Ruby would have had third in the Championship if he had not given up his car to Andretti, but as a result of doing so he finished fourth in the standings with 2,799 points.—D. G.